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Democrats can’t complain about the retribution Kevin McCarthy is threatening

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House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, likely the chamber’s next speaker, is holding firm to his pledge to strip three liberal Democrats of their committee assignments when the new Congress is seated next year.

That’s not sitting well with Democrats, as they are about to enter the House minority for the first time in four years. One of the lawmakers McCarthy singled out said it was part of a broader Republican campaign of “fear, xenophobia, Islamophobia and racism,” while another said the GOP leader was appealing to the “lowest common denominator” and “if that lowest common denominator wants to remove people from committee, that’s what they’ll do.” 

Democrats have employed similar tactics only to see the GOP respond in kind. McCarthy is taking a page from the playbook of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

But Democrats opened the door to the majority party dictating minority lawmakers’ committee memberships when they voted to remove a controversial Republican lawmaker from her committees last year. By breaking tradition and meddling with committee assignments across the aisle, they had to know they were triggering years of partisan tit for tat.

If McCarthy follows through, Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota will be kicked off the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Reps. Adam Schiff and Eric Swalwell, both of California, won’t be allowed to serve on the House Intelligence Committee. All three are big Trump critics and liberal lightning rods, with Schiff playing a major role in the impeachments of former President Donald Trump as chair of the intelligence committee. 

The moves are in apparent retaliation for the Democratic-controlled House taking a vote, unprecedented in modern history, revoking Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s committee assignments. The vote was held after the Georgia Republican came under fire for a variety of incendiary comments, and the GOP conference didn’t take such action themselves.

“The Democrats have created a new thing where they’re picking and choosing who can be on committee,” McCarthy, R-Calif., said in an interview with the conservative outlet Breitbart earlier this year. “Never in the history [of Congress] have you had the majority tell the minority who could be on committee.”

McCarthy reiterated his vow to keep Omar off foreign affairs in a speech to the Republican Jewish Coalition over the weekend. “Last year, I promised that when I became speaker, I would remove Rep. Ilhan Omar from the House Foreign Affairs Committee based on her repeated anti-semitic and anti-American remarks,” McCarthy subsequently tweeted. “I’m keeping that promise.” 

Omar has been taken to task, including by members of her own party, for use of language some saw as perpetuating negative stereotypes of Jews in harsh comments about Israel, for which she apologized. She has most recently said that McCarthy is unfairly attacking her and Republicans “have openly tolerated antisemitism, anti-Muslim hate and racism in their own party.” 

Historically, House committee assignments are largely determined by the two parties and their steering committees. Simply put, the majority party picks its committee members and the minority party does the same. Under that arrangement, parties have been responsible for policing their own — such as when Republicans voted to deny then-Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, committee assignments after he made widely condemned remarks about white supremacy and white nationalism

“We will not be seating Steve King on any committees in the 116th Congress. It was a unanimous decision,” McCarthy, already the highest-ranking GOP leader in the House, told reporters at the time. He added, “I think we spoke very loud and clear that we will not tolerate this type of language in the Republican Party.”

Democrats hoped the same would be true when it came to Greene’s language about QAnon, conspiracy theories — including some widely seen as antisemitic — and political violence. Republicans considered punishing her by taking her committee assignments, but Greene apologized for some of her worst statements, and her colleagues relented. She later visited the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and apologized for comparing House Covid mask-wearing rules to the laws of Nazi Germany.

“Past comments from and endorsed by Marjorie Taylor Greene on school shootings, political violence, and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories do not represent the values or beliefs of the House Republican Conference,” McCarthy said at the time. “I condemn those comments unequivocally. I condemned them in the past. I continue to condemn them today.”

But Republicans made no changes to Greene’s committee slots. The full House then intervened. Democrats, as the majority party, had the votes to prevail, and Greene was ejected from her committees.

Now Democrats don’t have the majority. In a period of political polarization, it was always predictable that this precedent would be used to go beyond removing members they viewed as particularly extreme and be extended to lawmakers who drive the other side’s fundraising emails. Especially since Democrats have employed similar tactics only to see the GOP respond in kind. 

McCarthy is taking a page from the playbook of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. After Democrats started filibustering Republican federal judicial nominees under President George W. Bush, McConnell responded by filibustering President Barack Obama’s, and escalated all the way to a nearly yearlong blockade of Merrick Garland’s nomination to the Supreme Court. 

When Senate Democrats eliminated the filibuster for lower courts to facilitate the confirmation of stalled Obama nominees via the “nuclear option” in 2013, McConnell did the same thing to ram through Trump’s Supreme Court pick four years later.

Many lawmakers are discovering social media and cable news are a better path to influence than committee assignments.

A similar dynamic is at play here. What first happened to Greene can now be applied to Omar, Swalwell and Schiff. Once that’s done, a future Democratic majority can deny committee memberships to Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, a conservative firebrand deeply disliked by liberals, and then the next Republican majority can do the same to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., a leading progressive who similarly annoys the right. Members can be targeted because they are too liberal, too conservative or just too unpopular with the majority party’s base.

Letting parties police their own ranks, and leaving it up to the voters to punish them if they refuse to do so, was the better system.

Another unintended consequence McCarthy and future Democratic leaders will have to grapple with is this: Many lawmakers are discovering social media and cable news are a better path to influence than committee assignments. Greene is more influential now than when she lost her perch on various committees. And while Schiff has been an important committee leader, Omar and Swalwell have become well known for reasons having more to do with viral moments and television hits. This could further incentivize celebrity lawmaking at the expense of serious legislative work.

Unlike the Senate, the House is a chamber where the majority rules in most things. That may be truer now more than ever.

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